Without getting lost in the bewildering complexities of quantum theory and relativity, we should still become familiar with certain utterly basic facts about the world. We ought to recall, in this connection, that modern physics has generated thoroughly revolutionary breakthroughs in the core meanings of space and time. These breakthroughs, however, also remain oddly distant from our understanding of the wider social world, including even world politics.
Consider, especially, the Middle East, where so much of the incessant struggle between Israel and the Arabs continues to concern space. There, at least on the surface, inter-communal conflict is substantially about land and territory. What is not so obvious is that this very same struggle is about time.
Why should the Middle East “peace process” contain, even inconspicuously, a clarifying element of chronology? In asking this subtle question, I enclose the words peace process in quotation marks because of its historical one-sidedness in the region. Myriad claims to the contrary notwithstanding, this sequence of negotiations has always heaped asymmetrical demands upon Israel, prodding incremental exchanges of Israeli land for disturbingly vague and always unkept Palestinian promises.
There is a hidden lesson here. Israel’s constant struggle against Arab/Islamist war and terror should be conducted with a more determined and nuanced understanding of time. Significantly, time means something very different to Israel’s foes than it does to Israelis themselves. For the latter, real time has more to do with an astute awareness of felt time, than it does with any more usual and tangible measures, that is, with those fixed and prefigured intervals inscribed without variation upon clocks.
There is great historical irony in this particular perspective. The palpable idea of felt time, of time-as-lived rather than clock time, has its origins in ancient Israel. Explicitly rejecting time as a linear progression, the early Hebrews had approached chronology as a qualitative experience. Dismissed as something that can submit only to abstract or quantitative measure, time was routinely understood in ancient Israel as a quality inseparable from its personally infused content. Indeed, the ancient Hebrew logic, or logos, could accept no other competing point of view.
Always, the Jewish prophetic vision was that of a community existing in time, and, simultaneously, living under a transcendent God. To be sure, political space in this immutable vision was important, but not because of territoriality. Instead, the significance of space – today, we are more apt to speak of “land” – stemmed unambiguously from the unique events that had presumably taken place within specific, and now-sacred, boundaries.
For Israel, today, the space-time relationship has at least two major policy implications. First, any still-considered territorial surrenders by Israel would reduce the amount of time Israel has left to resist war and terrorism. This, of course, is incontestable, and hardly warrants any further discussion. Second, historically, certain past surrenders, especially when considered together, have provided valuable time for Israel’s enemies to await more perfect attack opportunities.
For Israel, still faced with recurrent war and terror on multiple fronts, the strategic importance of time can be expressed not only by its unique relationship to space, but also by its even less evident role as a storehouse of memory. By recalling the manifold and relentless vulnerabilities of Jewish life in the world, Israel’s current leaders could begin to step back from a seemingly endless pattern of lethal surrenders. Such movements, and such consequent policy stances, could ultimately prove to enhance the prospects for a real peace.
“Yesterday,” says Samuel Beckett in his analysis of Proust “is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous.” Aware that tomorrow will be determined largely by “yesterday,” Israel now has a rare opportunity to recognize that time itself can be a source power.
The subjective metaphysics of time, a reality based not on equally numbered moments, but rather upon deeply felt representations of time as lived, could eventually impact the way in which Israel confronts its enemies. This means, among other things, struggling to understand the precise manner in which certain enemy states and terror groups themselves choose to live within time.
If it could be determined, for example, that particular terrorist groups now accept a very short time horizon in their search for a fiery victory over Israel, the Israeli response to enemy aggressions would have to be correspondingly swift (possibly even including certain still-appropriate preemptions). If, however, it would seem that this time horizon is much longer, Israel’s response could be more “patient,” thus relying more for safety and national security on the relatively passive dynamics of military deterrence and defense.
Of special interest to Prime Minister Netanyahu should be the hidden time horizon of the jihadist suicide bomber. Although a counterintuitive understanding, this form of adversary is uniquely afraid of death, so afraid, in fact, that he is willing to “kill” himself (or herself) as a way of overcoming the religiously graphic and urgently compelling “terrors of the grave.”
Paradoxically, this paradoxical strategy of conquering death by suicide could offer Israel a new way to “unstop time,” that is, to reorient an otherwise insistent chronology from sudden personal extinction to a presumed eternity of communal bliss.
Israel could immediately benefit from understanding the adversarial mindset that commonly identifies “suicide” with eternal life. Such a new understanding would best focus upon a core Islamist terrorist idea, that time somehow does not have a “stop.” After all, heroic “martyrdom” is routinely presented to Muslim believers as the ideal way to soar above those mortal limits mechanically imposed by clocks.
But how can such an important understanding be imparted? One promising way to combat the Arab/Islamist suicide bomber’s deadly notion of time is to strenuously disabuse him (or her) of this notion. This would require a primary and prior realization that the suicide bomber now sees himself (or herself) as a religious sacrificer, escaping from time without meaning, or “profane” time, to a more hallowed place of sacred time.
Abandoning the defiled time of ordinary mortals, a chronology linked in Islam to personal death, the suicide bomber seeks to to transport himself or herself into the excruciatingly exclusive world of martyred immortals. Always, the temptation to “sacrifice” despised “infidels” at the voracious altar of jihad is overwhelming.
What should Israel now do with this more informed understanding of its enemies’ concept of time? Its immediate policy response should be to convince prospective suicide bombers that their intended “sacrifice” will never actually elevate them above the mortal limits of time. But here the assorted would-be sacrificers would first need to be convinced that: (1) they are not now living in “profane time” and (2) that every sacrificial killing of infidels is in reality a profanation of Islam.
This complex task of persuasion will not be easy. To begin, Israelis will need to recognize the problems of chronology as deeply religious and cultural quandaries. They will also need to acknowledge, finally, that the search for authentically promising peace plans must ultimately be informed by a true intellectual understanding. In this largely untapped recognition, physics, unexpectedly, will help us to gain a better understanding of all world politics.